Before the influenza epidemic began, 1918 was already a time of uncertainty and disruption for Americans. The United States' entry in World War I in April 1917 meant Americans had already accepted dramatic changes to their daily lives. The nation's economy turned to wartime production and military support. Federal campaigns urged Americans to conserve food and energy use in an effort to prevent nationwide shortages of necessities like sugar and coal. Even before the “Spanish flu” began to spread, everyday people had already accepted the need to make personal sacrifices for the greater good.
These messages were more than just a PR campaign. Americans, by and large, appear to have embraced wartime conservation efforts. There was tremendous social pressure to do so. These messages arrived in every form of mass media — in newspapers, on flyers, in magazines, in advertisements, in news reels, on the radio — and from family, friends, and neighbors, too. There was a moral message to these propaganda campaigns: conserving food would help the war effort; wasting food would hurt the war effort. People who put their personal desires first were looked upon not just as unpatriotic or unneighborly but as selfish and unfeeling. Judgment against such un-American acts was harsh.
In February 1918, shoppers in Junction City experienced widespread disruption to their routines when a state law went into effect limiting the hours of operation of various businesses in an effort to conserve coal. In Geary County, grocery stores and meat markets were to open at 9 a.m., while department stores and other retailers were to open at noon and close at 9:30 p.m. Restaurants, hotels, and bakeries were barred from sales of "tobacco, cigars, candy, chewing gum, etc." — anything but food — from close until 10 a.m. Banks were open only from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Lights were to be turned off except where necessary for safety.
Geary County's order suggested compliance was a moral imperative: "Every citizen from a patriotic sense of duty is expected to co-operate in the great national movement to conserve fuel because necessity requires it, and also to assist in the prosecution of the war."
"It takes the average American quite a while to change his habits if he doesn't have to, but once he is forced he can change in a very short time," the Junction City Union observed Feb. 1, 1918. "This was demonstrated this morning when the town stores closed tight until nine o'clock, when at that hour the grocery stores and meat markets opened and at noon the dry goods and clothing stores opened."
The Union's reporter evidently visited a few of these stores before noon in an attempt to find shoppers trying to violate the order: "The reporter found two men running about hunting a place to get in. One man wanted a shave, which he could not get until noon, and he admitted he should have tended to the matter last evening, but would not get caught again. Another man wanted to buy a few groceries and he tried two doors, then admitted he would get in line and obey the buying rules hereafter."
The actions of this intrepid reporter hint at the pressures faced by everyday Americans to accept these disruptions for the good of the nation — and at the consequences they might otherwise face. A different article printed the same day reported that in Topeka, a committee was "considering a plan for organization of vigilance committees." The headline read: FORMED VIGILANTES. Will Watch for Traitors in Every Community. Will Gather Information. All Unpatriotic Movements and Efforts to Obstruct the War Will be Reported."
Americans who resisted these public campaigns to assist with the war effort risked public shaming and social ostracism, at a minimum. German communities faced even greater risks. German language instruction and German-speaking church services virtually ended during World War I. In some communities, traditionally German churches were mysteriously burned to the ground. At Camp Dix in New Jersey, soldiers afflicted with the German measles reportedly renamed it "liberty measles." Anti-immigrant sentiment was already on the rise, and the Ku Klux Klan regained power in this political atmosphere, whitewashing itself as a Christian organization fighting for the vitality of White America, and painting immigrants, Jews, and Catholics as anti-American. This was America in 1918.
In March 1918, soldiers at Camp Funston were getting sick. Influenza was circulating among the thousands of young men who gathered there from across the country for basic training. These soldiers spread the virus back to their hometowns when they visited, to other camps they were shipped to, and finally overseas and to foreign troops. Influenza returned to Camp Funston in October. Hundreds of men died. But by that time, similar outbreaks had already crippled other camps and cities, and the need for public health measures was known. What did the October 1918 outbreak mean for life in Junction City?
Rural schools in Geary County closed starting Oct. 14, although some had already closed the previous week. On Oct. 9, the state ordered all public gatherings to cease from Oct. 12-19, "for a week at least, to prevent the spread of influenza." An article published Oct. 11 explains, "Influenza is essentially a crowd disease, the infection being spread most rapidly by people in close contact. The closing order is to prevent any large number of persons being together at one time."
In a pattern we might recognize today, the weeklong ban on public meetings was indeed extended; on Oct. 31, the Union's Social News and Women's War Activities page reported that the ban on public meetings "has practically eliminated a social calendar for this week" and expressed uncertainty as to "whether or not the social calendar for the coming Yuletide will be as previous seasons." One item on the page attempted to interject some humor into the day's news: "A little girl was heard to say this week, 'right now is the best time to have the influenza, while everything's closed up and you won't miss nothin' by staying in.'"
Many of Junction City's businesses voluntarily shortened their operating hours to help prevent the spread of the flu. "The merchants of Junction City are always found in the front ranks when a movement for the public welfare is started," the Union declared Oct. 11. "Immediately upon receiving a request for reducing the hours of exposure during the present epidemic of Spanish influenza, a hearty response was given, over forty merchants signed up to close their stores at 6 p.m."
October 1918, for residents of Geary County, was a time of uncertainty and disruption, much as the last month has been for us today. Americans knew neither when quarantine measures would end nor when the war would end. Good news was coming for them, as I hope it is for us too.